There are five of them: two men, three women, all Norwegians. They include ex–Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland, two former parliamentarians, a top lawyer and a onetime Bishop of Oslo. They look sobersided enough; you might easily believe them to be the board directors of a cementmaker or an accounting firm. But the Nobel committee has once again proved its flair for comedy, by awarding the 2012 Peace Prize to the European Union.
Comedy, of course, depends on timing, and the timing of this award couldn’t be more piquant. As Jagland acknowledged in his Oct. 12 announcement of the winner, the E.U. “is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest.” As the members of the single currency find themselves trapped, in the memorable phrase of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “in a burning building with no exits,” governments are battling one another and, not infrequently, their own citizens. As soon as news of the award broke, leaked by Norwegian public broadcaster NRK some 30 minutes before Jagland confirmed it, Twitter convulsed with merriment. Perhaps the committee meant to honor the E.U. for economics, mused some jesters. Others speculated that Germany would collect the prize money, more than US$1 million, and refuse to share it with Greece.
To be fair, it’s not easy choosing the Peace Prize recipient. This year the committee had to evaluate 231 nominations — 188 for individuals and 43 for organizations. They opted for the E.U. on the basis that “the union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” said Jagland. He continued:
In the interwar years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made several awards to persons who were seeking reconciliation between Germany and France. Since 1945, that reconciliation has become a reality. The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable.
That’s true enough and hugely important. But again, timing is everything. The announcement came on a day when many European news organizations featured a spat between Christine Lagarde, the former French Finance Minister who now heads the International Monetary Fund, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Lagarde warned that too much austerity risks deepening euro-zone problems. Schäuble erupted, “When you want to climb a big mountain and you start climbing down the mountain, then the mountain will get even higher!” That told her.
The odd cross word may be all that divides Germany and France (oh, and rising levels of French debt), but watching the rise of populist parties in struggling euro-zone countries, scenarios of new European conflicts seem less remote every day. Still, the prize is for past achievements, as Jagland made clear:
The fall of the Berlin Wall made E.U. membership possible for several Central and Eastern European countries, thereby opening a new era in European history. The division between East and West has to a large extent been brought to an end; democracy has been strengthened; many ethnically based national conflicts have been settled.
The admission of Croatia as a member next year, the opening of membership negotiations with Montenegro and the granting of candidate status to Serbia all strengthen the process of reconciliation in the Balkans.
That assessment overlooks the E.U.’s minimal role in resolving the hostilities that the process of reconciliation is meant to address. It failed to prevent war in Bosnia, the region’s one major conflict since the E.U. was founded, could not stop that war and had little impact on its outcome.
Here’s another amusing fact: until a few years ago, a majority of Europeans would have welcomed the prize. But opinion surveys in the 27 member countries show support for the union eroding. European Parliament President Martin Schulz did find succor in a Eurobarometer survey, released in September, that showed 40% of respondents in favor of the E.U., vs. just 31% in 2011. Schulz called that result “encouraging” — not the most apt response to evidence that substantially less than half of the E.U.’s citizens are happy about it, a decline of 12 points since 2007. In those halcyon days, 69% of Europeans also declared themselves “very or fairly optimistic” about the future of the union.
European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso greeted news of the award with enthusiasm. It “is justified recognition for a unique project that works for the benefit of its citizens and also for the world,” he said. He didn’t look as if he was gritting his teeth. Yet as previous Peace Prize winners could tell him (take a bow, Barack Obama), the funniest thing of all about the Nobel Peace Prize is its ability to create division and draw fire on its recipients. Once again, the Nobel committee has excelled itself.